Cow Depreciation – Don’t Follow a Recipe

by Dallas Mount

cow calf

There has been quite a bit written about managing cow deprecation over the past few years. In simple terms cow depreciation is the reduction of value of a cow from its height of value until it is sold for salvage. I’m glad this often hidden cost is getting attention and that ranchers now see this as a significant cost. It can be an easy cost to ignore, because when you keep and develop your own heifers, you don’t write a check for cow depreciation, but it may be the first or second largest cost to keeping a cow each year.  

To look into the issue of cow depreciation I find it easier to take cows out of it initially. Let’s think about depreciation on a pickup. If we buy a pickup for $60,000 then drive it for 5 years and sell it for $40,000 the formula to calculate annual depreciation is:

Purchase Price Salvage Value


Years of Service

In our example it would be ($60,000 – $40,000)/5 or $4,000 annual deprecation. Of course, a pickup doesn’t depreciate the same every year. Equipment usually depreciates rapidly initially, then the deprecation slows down after a few years.  

Now let’s apply our formula to cows. If the purchase price of a young, bred animal is $1,400, the salvage value is $700 and the years of service is the number of calves the average cow produces in her lifetime. If you follow the national average of about a 20% replacement rate assuming culling opens and dries, then the average cow produces just over 3 calves in her lifetime. Sure, we all remember the cow that produced 10 calves, but what about all those who produce 1 and fail to rebreed. When we average those in, most ranches are between 3 and 4 calves per cow. We will use 3.5 for our example. So, the math will be ($1,400 – $700)/3.5 = $200. What this tells us is that on average, each cow is costing the business $200 in cow depreciation every year. It is a significant cost to the business! Most of your neighbors are not doing anything to manage it because they don’t even know it exists.  

However, just like the pickup depreciates at different rates during its life, so does the cow. Wally Olson has helped me and many others understand this through the cow value curve.cow value curve

If you plot the value of each age class of cow throughout her life you realize the young animals appreciate, and cows older than 5 depreciate rapidly. This means that most of the depreciation is sitting on the backs of those older cows. There is a dangerous way of thinking that is common among ranchers that you need to produce 3-4 calves before that cow breaks even. This is crazy! That cow should pay her way every day on the ranch or she should be gone. If you decide to keep a heifer calf and turn her into a bred heifer then you took a $700 heifer calf and made $1,300 bred heifers or $900 open heifers. Both are gaining value, but you have her annual costs with no calf coupon to collect. If you can’t do that profitably, then maybe you should buy them from someone who can.  

As you look at the cow value curve, the better question is, where on the curve lies your competitive advantage? Are you good at making young bred animals? Are you able to take the middle-aged bred cow and run a simple system at scale that does this well? Are you able to take the older cows, get another calf or two from them and salvage them for about the same you paid for them? Where is your competitive advantage? One guarantee is that your ranch has some age class of animal that is dependably more profitable than another age class. Finding out which and doing more of that could make a significant difference in your profitability. Of course, this isn’t for everyone. For some the ranch isn’t about profit maximization. Having a home-raised herd that we are proud of and that fits our goals may be more important.

Cow depreciation is a major cost that demands management attention. But, there isn’t a formula to address it. What works for one ranch will not work for another because your skills, overheads, and direct costs are different. It does justify a thorough dive into the economics and evaluation of alternatives that fit your operation.

11 Responses to “Cow Depreciation – Don’t Follow a Recipe”

September 09, 2020 at 8:02 am, Garry said:

Don’t forget to look at the cattle price cycle. How many people keep extra heifers when they are expensive and sell more when cattle are cheap? Heifers retained for breeding on a rising market will be sold for salvage on a falling market. Try it the other way around.


September 09, 2020 at 10:48 am, Mark Hollenbeck said:

Great article. I have seen too many opinions that one age or another is over or undervalued. I believe that the market fairly values the animals and an operator has to figure out their competitive advantage.


September 13, 2020 at 7:54 am, Jerry Engh said:

It is evident that after the age of 5 or 6 a cow depreciates only about $200/year. If she is bred and producing a growth calf every year why would you replace her with a weaned heifer that will not produce a weaned calf until she is at least 2 and 1/2 years of age or pay roughly $1500 for a bred heifer that you have minimal information as to her production in your herd?


September 14, 2020 at 7:17 am, Dallas Mount said:

Hi Jerry.
The annual depreciation is going to depend on several factors including a herd’s performance numbers, what a ranch is able to “salvage” cows leaving the ranch for, and what “input” costs are for replacement breds coming into the herd. It won’t be $200 for everyone. For some it will be much more, for others less.
The challenge you bring up of replacing her with a weaned heifer is a fair challenge. You point out what is a real concern that she won’t produce a calf for some time – This is a cash flow consideration that should be looked at. However, economically, she should still be gaining in value, so the ranch is creating economic value just not producing cash flow unless you choose to sell her as a bred heifer. I don’t put much faith in what we tell ourselves we know about the cattle when selecting heifers to keep. Having minimal information (production records) isn’t a concern as long as they come from a herd that has a chance of working in your environment. Thanks for the comment and discussion on this important issue!


September 14, 2020 at 6:40 pm, Wallace Olson said:

You need to look at the relationships of your inventory not so much the cattle cycle. In 2014 heifers were under valued to cows. Cows were selling for $3500 and the heifer calf for $1200. Keeping the cow was by far the greatest risk. A five year old cow in 2014 is a $700 cull cow now, the $1200 heifer is a $1500 cow now.


September 14, 2020 at 6:53 pm, Wallace Olson said:

Only $200 of deprecation is 13% of the value of a $1500 cow. As an investor in the cow business buy keeping the cow that is what you would loss in value. If your carry costs are $600 plus the deprecation would make that cow break even and that is what most ranchers are.


September 23, 2020 at 10:32 am, Garry said:

Good point, probably should have sold them both when you consider what that heifer cost by the time she produced a calf.


September 24, 2020 at 9:04 am, Wallace Olson said:

You are looking back, to have a on going business you need inventory. I have no idea what the market is going to do. So all I can do is deal with today. Keep what is under valued and sell what is over valued. And under stand “TIME” cows run out of it.


February 15, 2021 at 4:48 pm, Ayer Ranch said:

I am interested to know what you all think of this; many of my neighbors are calving in Feb and March. They send some of their cows to town when they are pregnant but real late. Maybe I could put out some feelers and buy their cows that are pregnant with May calves and offer a small premium for them over the salvage price at the local sale barn.
Yellow hat says it mitigates the risk of bringing in low country cattle to our high mountain situation here. Black hat; i wonder if that February calver might make milking problems if she has her calf on May grass.
Your thoughts appreciated,


February 17, 2021 at 8:37 am, Wally Olson said:

Buying the neighbors late calving cows is good. They fit your country and you know the cows. Giving $50 over market is making your neighbor $100 because of the cost to sell the cow at the barn. He needs to know that. As far as the bags try some and see what happens. You need to look at this as education ,start small and learn the ropes. Also look a buying the cuts that they have when shipping their calves and start a stocker program.


March 15, 2021 at 8:25 pm, Ayer Ranch said:

Thanks Wally. Good points and good suggestions. Appreciate your input!


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